Sex with an Ex: Good or Bad for Breakup Recovery?

Does sexual intimacy with a former partner help or hinder your recovery from a breakup?

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Is sex with an ex a good or bad idea? freestocks

Sex with an ex. Ask any friend if they think it would be a good idea to return to the arms of a former lover for one more night of passion, and the answer is likely to be a vociferous “No”. Under no circumstances. Never.

But why? When we break up with a partner, especially a partner with whom we have been physically and emotionally intimate, many of us experience genuine heartache. We mourn the end of the relationship and must go through a period of recovery before we feel ready to embark on a fresh relationship.

To seek respite from this pain, however temporarily, by sleeping with an ex feels dangerous, or at least unhealthy. Nevertheless, research shows that around 20% of ex-spouses sleep with their former partner within four months of separating. Does this risk rekindling feelings for someone we have already decided is not right for us? Will sex with an ex take us right back to the beginning of our recovery, postponing our ability to move on and find someone new?

Stephanie Spielmann, a psychologist at Wayne State University in Detroit, and her colleagues Samantha Joel and Emily Impett from Canada, decided to find out once and for all whether the received wisdom about sex with an ex is true. Does sex with an ex help or hinder our relationship recovery?

They recruited over 100 people who had recently split up. The average time since breakup was just over a week. For the following four weeks, the volunteers completed daily surveys about their feelings and behavior. How emotionally attached did they feel toward their ex? How distressed were they over their breakup? Had they pursued sexual contact with the ex?

Sex with an Ex: Help or hindrance?

The psychologists found that people who pursued sex with a former partner tended to feel more emotionally attached to their ex, particularly on days when they made efforts to have sex with their ex. So far, conventional wisdom seems to be correct.

However, volunteers who pursued sex with their ex did not report any more distress at their breakup or intrusive thoughts about their relationship. In fact, volunteers reported feeling better on days when they pursued sex.

Another important question Spielmann and her team wanted to answer was whether pursuing sex with an ex makes us feel more emotionally attached to them, or if we are more likely to pursue sex when we feel emotionally attached. Which comes first: the pursuit of sex or the emotional attachment? The nature of the study — with its daily surveys — allowed the researchers to solve this “chicken and egg” conundrum. They found that feelings of distress or pain did not appear to precede attempts to have sex with the ex. Rather, pursuing sex with an ex was associated with increased feelings of well-being over subsequent days.

Spielmann also checked in with her volunteers two months later. As one might expect, feelings of emotional closeness to the former partner declined over time. The volunteers were beginning to recover. But the speed of this recovery process was not slowed or accelerated among those who had pursued sex with a partner. It didn’t make a difference either way.

The scientists acknowledge that further research is needed to test whether the long-term effects of pursuing sex with an ex are positive or negative. In the meantime, it certainly seems like the lay theories about sex with an ex are wrong. Pursuing sex with an ex may neither help nor hinder your recovery from a breakup, but is probably not as disastrously ill-advised as many of us assumed.

Spielmann, S. S., Joel, S., & Impett, E. A. (in press). Pursuing sex with an ex: does it hinder breakup recovery? Archives of Sexual Behavior. View summary

The content of this post first appeared in the 30 October 2018 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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Evolutionary psychologist. Studies human attraction and mate choice. More at

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